It was when the Maple Leaf Singers were being highlighted at the B.C. Pavilion at Expo ’86 that New Westminster-based founders George and Marie Gillis made a discovery.
As the couple’s son, Rob Gillis, remembers it, a glitch in the schedule led to an impromptu performance by the group without music books in hand.
“That’s when they discovered the choir didn’t need the music, and for the first time the choir stopped using it and converted into a show-choir, and started doing all of the choreography – that was a huge change in direction,” said Rob, the choir’s assistant music director and new conductor.
Today, the Maple Leaf Singers – celebrating their 50th year in existence, with 50 members ranging in age from 18 to 80 – are known throughout Metro Vancouver for their dynamic shows, musical versatility and a highly accessible repertoire that includes everything from show tunes, ballads and pop hits to rock n’ roll, jazz and gospel.
With more than 12 shows each year, the group delivers upbeat, no-fee entertainment for special events, private bookings and fundraisers — in many cases bringing their music to shut-ins or those who otherwise would not see such a performance.
Now one of the Vancouver area’s oldest choirs and the longest-standing member of the BC Choral Federation, the group continues to draw members from the White Rock, Surrey and Langley region, and regularly performs in the area.
That included a full-house show April 18 at the Peninsula Seniors’ Residence in South Surrey, where Rob is a general manager for Sienna Senior Living (which also includes overseeing the Pacifica Seniors Residence).
But their biggest performance of the year will be the upcoming “Solid Gold,” a 50th-anniversary concert that comes to New Westminster’s Massey Theatre on Saturday, May 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 27 at 2 p.m.
Included will be songs by the Hollies, the Beatles, the Doobie Brothers, Elton John, Billy Joel, and house-shaking specialties like “Rock This Town” and “You Can’t Stop The Beat” — as well as the rousing gospel of “Hallelujah,” “By and By” and “Swinging With The Saints,” to the haunting melodies of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Shenandoah.”
“It’s the best of the best from 50 years of performing, including one of the songs that was in the first show in 1968, ‘The Happy Wanderer,'” said Rob, who lives in Fleetwood.
“You name it, we’ve got it — there’s all kinds of stuff in there. It’s songs we know that have been crowd-pleasers over the years. Putting a show together this year was more of a challenge this year than in previous years, with all this great music to choose from.”
Rob was singer and bass player with Blue Meenies, a Vancouver-based corporate and club band, for 26 years.
A decade ago, he and his wife Josie decided it was time to join the Maple Leaf Singers as full-time singing members. Last year Rob stepped up to become assistant to musical director Wilson Fowlie, who has conducted the group for 17 years since Rob’s father retired in 2000, and this year he will succeed Fowlie following the latter’s retirement.
Rob’s history with the group started a lot earlier, of course.
“I grew up with the Maple Leaf Singers,” he said.
“(The group) was put together when I was one year old,” adding that his dad fused the short-lived Gillis Chorale, a small group that rehearsed out of their home, with the Maple Leaf Choir, which had been seeking a new conductor.
“It’s a community choir — we play theatre-quality shows for people who can’t always get out to theatres,” said Rob, who first started playing percussion and singing with the group when he was eight.
“Performing with the singers put me in touch with the seniors community. which has had a major influence on me choosing my current career.”
Although both of his parents retired from the choir, they still remain highly involved, Rob added.
“While dad stopped conducting, my mom, to this day, is still sewing all our costumes — at the ripe age of 85,” he chuckled.
Recruiting new singers is an ongoing and highly necessary process, Gillis said, and singers are always invited to try out for the group (for more information, visit the website, mapleleafsingers.com).
“It’s only by getting new people that we can ensure that this will go on,” he said.
“The biggest strengths of the Maple Leaf Singers are the members’ sense of family, our joy in and love of singing, and the sense of contributing to the community.”
Rob notes that the organization is a registered not-for-profit society.
“It costs us money to be involved and real passion and devotion to rehearse and perform – the big spring show allows us to do what we do in in the community, to raise the funds to provide the service we do.”
Massey Theatre is located at 735 8th Ave., New Westminster. Tickets for the “Solid Gold” concert ($25, youth and students $15) are available from 778-245-4445 or at the website, and special group pricing is available.